Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
Volume 49, Number 1, Spring 1993
pp. 21-47 | 10.1353/arq.1993.0019
NANCY SCHNOG "The Comfort of My Fancying": Loss and Recuperation in The Gates Ajar LTHOUGH largely forgotten today, The Gates Ajar holds a .place in American literary history as of one of the most popular books of the post-Civil War period.1 Published in 1868, the novel attracted more than 100,000 buyers in its first few years of circulation and continued to draw readers for at least thirty more. So successful was the novel that it spawned a number of imitations as well as an industry of 'Gates Ajar' products, including a patent medicine, collar and tippet, floral arrangement, and a cigar. Yet, while central to the popular imagination of its own time, the novel has failed to earn the intellectual respect of critics, who have been appalled by the philosophically debased nature of the novel's central trope—a material vision of heaven scaled to the dimensions of middle-class life. Only recently have a handful of cultural historians and feminist critics begun to reconsider the sources of this vision's once-felt textual and cultural power. Written by twenty-year-old Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, The Gates Ajar was openly concerned with addressing the suffering of women whose lives were irrevocably affected by the Civil War and its unprecedented casualties. Cast in the form of a personal journal, the novel records the emotional and spiritual crisis that overwhelms the novel's twenty-fouryear -old protagonist, Mary, when she learns of her brother's death one week before the war's end. In the diary Phelps traces the stages of Mary's mourning and the failure of the available channels of sympathy—minisArizona Quarterly Volume 49 Number 1, Spring 1993 Copyright © 1993 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004-161 Nancy Schnog terial attention, religious sermons and doctrines, condolence rituals and community help—to alleviate the major depression which besets her with the news of her brother's death. With the arrival of Mary's Aunt Winifred and her child, Faith, however, the protagonist begins the process of emotional healing which had previously eluded her. As the novel's ideal condoler, Aunt Winifred, a widow, teaches Mary to internalize a theology built on the concept of a concrete heavenly home, where families and loved ones are eventually re-embodied and reunited, and where unlimited opportunities are open to all the redeemed , including divine access to concert halls, nature preserves, art galleries, intergalactic exploration and travel, as well as meetings with favorite poets and presidents. While this vision earned the scorn of Mark Twain, who called it "a mean little ten cent heaven about the size of Rhode Island,"2 it suits the needs of Phelps' protagonist. With this revised picture of the afterlife in view, Mary overcomes not only the disabling pain of her brother Royal's death, but also her second major loss (and the book's final event), the death of Aunt Winifred. While eliciting theological and literary condemnation in the nineteenth century, Phelps' story has today evoked sharply divided accounts of the novel's deep emotional appeal to its audience: on the one hand critics attribute the novel's magnetism to its soothing reassurances and psychological escapism, on the other to its latent but serious political objectives. A supporter of the first view, Helen Sootin Smith, describes the novel as "appealing nakedly to the wish-fulfilling thinking of its readers," while Ann Douglas, in an influential reading, characterizes Phelps' heavenly utopia as "a celestial retirement village" posited on "hopeful literal-minded assurance."3 In contrast, recent feminist critics of the novel have located the novel's allure in its deeper textual structures and implicit social criticism. Christine Stansell, for instance, uncovers "subterranean currents offemale rebellion" as well as "deep sense of sisterhood."4 More recently, Carol Farley Kessler casts the novel's Utopian ideals as a political program or "a means of education for change."5 Synthesizing and extending both these interpretative lines, this essay examines the novel's cultural power in terms of the multileveled "psychological work" it performed in its mid to late nineteenthcentury context.6 Specifically, I will argue that far from being a work that consoled The Gates Ajar23 soley through...